"Just Relax" - Yea Right!
Students are stressed. Teachers are stressed. And it’s understandable and should be expected. If you do this job right, it takes a lot out of you and drains you emotionally and physically. There is so much that we cannot control around us, even our own emotions are really hard to keep in check. Especially when our students push our buttons over and over and over…and over… But what we can control is our attitude and actions. Consider deep breathing strategies as way to reset both for your students and for yourself. Many of our students arrive to school every day with a lot of baggage and anxieties due to home lives or just their own personality. The school day itself is fast-paced and busy, often adding to the stress that our students carry with them. Deep breathing strategies can help with slowing everything down and focusing on the moment which in turns affects our overall well-being and stress.
6 Breathing Strategies
Research from the Mayo Clinic describes the benefits of deep breathing as calming anxiety and regulating the autonomic nervous system (ANS). ANS controls involuntary body functions such as body temperature and blood pressure. Holding your breath and exhaling slowly allows carbon dioxide to build up in the blood enhancing the cardio-inhibitory response of the vagus nerve. This stimulates your parasympathetic system and has a positive effect of calming and relaxing your body. Think of your heart rate as a measure of stress. Faster heart rates equal hyped up attention, and slower heart rates equal relaxed calm and focus. An intentional mindfulness on the length of inhales and exhales can increase or decrease heart rates. When you inhale, your jump start your body with an added dose of oxygen. When you exhale longer and slower, you can reduce this level of that intensity in your system. Slowing down your breathing, especially incrementally, will help you calm down and lower anxiety. If you feel the stress building in class either for you or your students, stop telling everyone just to take a deep breath and relax. Teach them how to do this through engaging strategies and routines.
We often rush from one activity to another trying to cram it all in, always feeling like there’s not enough time in the day. Using breathing strategies as a transition or during transitions can help refocus students and slow down just a little bit to get them ready for the next lesson. These are especially great if you are transitioning from an active lesson to a more passive or stationary lesson. For example, going from a ‘get your wiggles out dance party’ to carpet time for a math lesson. If you don’t calm them down intentionally, students have a difficult time slowing themselves down and getting ready to sit appropriately, especially those behaviorally at-risk. Bonus – Try to use your voice as a tool to calm them down at the same time. Speak normal voice level at the beginning and by the end of the breathing exercise, get down to a quiet whisper.
A handful of strategies are listed and described below. These don’t require props or sensory tools and are easy to use with groups of students.
TIMED BREATHING – Use a timer, have the teacher count aloud, or have mental counting. Start with a lower amount of time and increase it either that day or over time. Breathe in for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds. Then you can add a pause in the middle. In (4), Pause (2), Out (4). If you exhale longer than inhale, it slows down your heart rate. So next step is to inhale (3), pause (2), exhale (6). You know your students best, so try these and see how long they can appropriately inhale and exhale. Bonus – Count to 10 – Breath in (1 second), breathe out (2 seconds), in (3), out (4), in (5), out (6), in (7), out (8), in (9), out (10).
SHAPES BREATHING – Use shapes. Each side is a new breath. You can even add time to each side for longer breaths. Bonus – Have the students trace the shapes with their fingers in the air while they are breathing.
BODY MOVEMENT BREATHING – There are a lot of ways to have students move their bodies to increase their breathing, but I’m going to focus here only on slow and simple ways to calm them down, not hype them up. One way is to have your students breathe in while they raise their arms to the sky, pause as they stretch as high as they can, then breathe out as they SLOWLY lower their arms to their sides. Repeat this a handful of times. You can even start with faster movement and intentionally lead them to slow this down each time to calm their bodies and minds. Be creative and use movements that take longer for them to do. Try this with just their hands only. Start with open stretched out hands. Breathe in slowly as they create fists. Pause. Breathe out slowly as they stretch out their fingers. Bonus – Have your students in teams come up with more whole body movements for breathing.
FINGER BREATHING – These strategies involve using students hands as props. Finger Breathing – Have students hold out one hand with fingers outstretched. Then have them trace their fingers with index finger of their other hand. Breathe in tracing up the finger, breathe out tracing down the finger.
IMAGINATION BREATHING – Have students use their imagination to act out breathing actions. Blowing Out the Candles – Have students hold out their hands with fingers outstretched. Have them pretend like their fingers are candles on a birthday cake. Try to build up the imagination having them remember details of this happening in real life. Then have them one by one blow the top of each finger. As their finger feels their breathing, they fold down their finger. After each is blown out, hand is in a fist. One I learned this week from one of our teachers was about soup. Soup Breathing – Imagine holding a steaming bowl of delicious soup. Breathe in through your nose deeply to smell the soup. Pause. Breathe out through your mouth by blowing the top of the soup to cool it down.
ANIMAL BREATHING – This one may cause some silliness but can be fun for kids. Have them make sounds like animals. For a snake, breathe in, pause, and then breathe out very slowly making a hissing sound. Try to have them keep the hissing sound for as long as they can. For a whale, breathe in deeply, then tilt you head up facing the ceiling and blow their air out straight up, as if it was a blowhole. For a bee, breathe in like you are smelling a flower, then breathe out making a buzzing sound for as long as they can. Bonus – Use characters they know in the same way. Try Darth Vader by breathing in like you are sucking through a straw, breathe out with an initial ‘p’ sound and drag that sound out (p…errrr).
More Calming & Breathing Strategies
It can be a challenge to remember what strategies we can use. Also, it’s important to change them up and offer a variety of options to our students. I made a visual below for nine different strategies including some of the ones above. Feel free to print this out and use it in your classroom right now! Download a free PDF version using this link.
The Trick is to Keep Breathing
Often in our lives, we do exactly this – we literally and figuratively hold our breath due to stress or the inability to cope with the moment. Try these strategies yourself and I guarantee they will help you and your students to relax and lower anxiety. Don’t forget to do these along with your students, live in the moment, and help yourself de-stress before the next activity. You deserve this too.